The death of 48-year-old screenwriter David Mills, who won an Emmy for his work on the Baltimore production of HBO's "The Corner," hit members of the Maryland-Hollywood TV and film communities hard yesterday.
Mills, who was born in Maryland and started his writing career as a reporter at the student-run University of Maryland The Diamondback newspaper, collapsed Tuesday in New Orleans on the set of the HBO drama, "Treme." He died in a New Orleans Hospital, according to series creator David Simon. The cause of death was a brain aneurysm.
"He was an enormous talent," Simon said in an obituary statement released by HBO Wednesday. "He loved words and he loved an argument – but not in any angry or mean-spirited way. He loved to argue ideas. He delighted in it, and he was confident that something smarter and deeper always came from a good argument."
"The Maryland area lost a very good writer and a really nice gentleman," actor and director Charles. S. Dutton said from Boston where he was in rehearsals for a new play. "I had loads of respect for him."
David Mills (far right) with the "Treme" writing staff. (From left) Tom Piazza, David Simon, Lolis Elie and Eric Overmyer. Photo by Mary Howell for HBO.
Dutton won an Emmy for his direction of “The Corner,” an acclaimed HBO mini-series about a West Baltimore family trying to escape the culture of drugs. Mills and Simon won Emmys for their writing and production of the series that aired in 2000.
“He and Simon loved working together,” said Rafael Alvarez, a former Sun reporter who also wrote for the Baltimore-based series as NBC’s “Homicide: Life on the Street” and HBO’s “The Wire.”
“Mills grew up in the African-American community and brought a real authenticity to the internal dynamics of the characters that a white writer could not,” Alvarez added.
Mills and Simon's were friends since their college days on The Diamondback. The duo went from being newspaper reporters -- Simon at The Baltimore Sun and Mills at The Washington Times and Washington Post -- to instant success as two of the best screenwriters working in TV crime drama in 1993 they co-wrote an episode titled “Bop Gun” for the NBC “Homicide” series based on Simon’s book.
The episode, which aired in 1994, starred Robin Williams in a story line involving a tourist who is murdered near Camden Yards. The work won the Writers Guild of America Award for best writing for an episodic drama.
Mills later went on to join the writing staff at "NYPD Blue” which was led by executive producers David Milch and Steven Bochco.
“David Mills was a brave and resourceful spirit and an extraordinary writer,” Milch says in the HBO statement. “I so deeply regret his loss as a friend, but more profoundly as an irreplaceable asset in the writing community.”
Mills also wrote for the NBC medical drama "ER." In 2003, he created and served as executive producer for the short-lived NBC crime drama, "Kingpin," the saga of a Mexican drug operation.
“’Kingpin -- that was his baby,” Alvarez said.
While the writing was again top-notch Mills, the series failed to attract an audience right out of the box, and was cancelled after six episodes. It was Mills' bad luck to be working in network TV rather than pay cable, where the series would have surely found an audience had it been given a chance to grow.
Though he lived in Los Angeles, Mills spent a lot of time in the Baltimore and Washington area because of his involvement on "The Corner," "Homicide" and "The Wire." In the 1990s, he appeared several times as a guest on what is now WYPR-FM, Baltimore's public radio station.
While the interviews always started out with a focus on TV screenwriting, they invariably spun off into his passions -- George Clinton and the Parliament/Funkadelic, media, race and politics. The enthusiasm that Mills brought to such topics was contagious.
“Mostly, my sense of him is that he was a very gentle, somewhat quiet soul with a huge passion for music,” Alvarez remembered. “He wrote a book about George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic of which he was very proud. I don’t think it got a lot of attention outside of the music world, but it was a labor of love.”
The book “George Clinton & P-Funk: An Oral History” was published in 1998.
In recent years, Mills wrote about media, music, race and politics on his blog, "Undercover Black Man." His autobiographical information at that site is vintage Mills in its economy, firm sense of professional identity and the central role that writing played throughout his adult life.
"I used to write for newspapers," he said. "Now I write for TV shows."
Matt Neufeld, news editor at Carroll Publishing in Bethesda, worked with Mills at the Diamondback in the 1980s and later at the Washington Times.
“Dave was a thoughtful, throught-provoking, introspective and intelligent guy who could write up a storm, either for his many memorable newspaper features, or for his many television scripts,” Nuefeld said. “Dave had great imagination and talent, and he left us far, far too soon. If there was ever a time that television sorely needed someone with Dave’s talent, it is now.”
Mills is survived by two sisters, Blanche Carroll of Peoria, Arizona, and Gloria Johnson of Charlotte, N.C.; and one brother, Franklin Mills, of Washington D.C.
Services are planned for the Washington D.C. area but details are unavailable at this time, according to a statement from HBO.